ANNAPOLIS – Frank Dunbaugh, 71, a retired lawyer, unknowingly integrated Florida hotels for a few days in the 1950s, fought for voting rights and desegregated schools in the South, headed the first integrated Washington, D.C., Boy Scout troop, joined a group in favor of abolishing the criminal justice system and went to court twice to challenge Maryland’s election laws.
His civil rights fight took him most recently to Maryland’s highest court where he argued, on behalf of the Green Party, that the state’s ballot access restrictions were unconstitutional and stifled party development.
“A political party without ballot access is like a racehorse without legs. We’re like a martini without gin,” Dunbaugh, a jovial man with gray hair and thick brown-rimmed glasses, told an amused courtroom of people.
But crafting clever statements to win cases — particularly civil rights cases — wasn’t in Dunbaugh’s original career plan.
In fact, he might never have become a civil rights activist if it weren’t for the GI Bill and an involuntary transfer.
“I kind of fell into civil rights stuff at different times,” said Dunbaugh, who majored in marketing and Latin American studies at the University of Miami, intent on becoming an international trader.
Dunbaugh jokes his plans were interrupted when the Naval Reserves called him to serve 22 months in a Washington, D.C., personnel office to fight “the battle of the red tape.”
Out of the service, Dunbaugh, somewhat inspired to become a lawyer by the McCarthy hearings, went to the University of Miami’s law school on the Navy’s dime.
At age 28, equipped with a law degree, but unsure he wanted to use it, Dunbaugh took a job with the U.S. Justice Department’s alien property office, where he thought he’d become an international banking expert.
But his plans were foiled again after nine months when the office handed him over to the newly created Civil Rights Division.
And that’s when his career as an activist, which eventually led him to challenging Maryland’s traditional two-party system in the Green Party case, began.
For about 20 years, starting in 1960, he scoured cities from South Carolina to Florida and Louisiana to Georgia, coaxing blacks to testify about voting discrimination and school desegregation.
Among many things, he fought against voting tests in Louisiana, fought for desegregation in Georgia and supervised it in Mississippi, where he learned to manipulate the press in the name of civil rights.
Dunbaugh was unstoppable, one colleague said.
“He’s like a bulldog. Once he gets his teeth into something he’s not letting go,” said Dwight Sullivan, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
Dunbaugh not only championed civil rights through the courts, but was and is an active government participant in other venues as well.
In 1994, he formed the Maryland Justice Policy Institute, a group that believes crime prevention is best achieved by spending money on children, not prisons.
Dunbaugh is also affiliated with a more extreme group, the International Circle of Penal Abolitionists.
If the group had its way, it’d throw out the criminal justice system, which Dunbaugh calls “a vengeance system,” and replace it with a tribal-like system used in Africa that focuses on healing.
The key to this system: “Jesus said it in 11 words and Aretha (Franklin) said it in seven letters, R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Dunbaugh said.
Dunbaugh, now retired, a father of four and a grandfather of five, lives with his second wife, Belinda Arrington, and her daughter in their Annapolis waterfront home.
Looking back, he seems pleased with his distinguished 40-year career, which has even earned the respect of his opponents.
“It is an honor to argue against a man of his stature,” said Michael D. Berman, a litigator with the Attorney General’s Office who argued against Dunbaugh in the Green Party case. “Mr. Dunbaugh has been a capable, articulate advocate, who is unfailingly courteous and professional.”
Now, Dunbaugh takes only a few cases he truly believes in, like the Green Party one.
Dunbaugh, who organized Maryland’s Citizens Party and defended the Socialist Party’s right to support write-in candidates, has always been a third- party supporter.
The appeals court should issue a ruling in the Green Party case within the next few months.
Dunbaugh said he never let money drive him, only his sense of what was right and wrong.
“Eventually people listen to him because he takes the principal view. Frank’s not somebody you’re going to see cutting deals in the back room,” Sullivan said. “Whenever you hear from Frank, you’re hearing the unvarnished truth.”